The bulk of Of Mice and Men takes place on a ranch to the south of Soledad, California. The exact date is not specified in the novella, but its events place the story against the backdrop of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, the farms and ranches around Soledad were a major destination for agricultural workers turned homeless by economic and ecological turmoil across the United States. Steinbeck witnessed first-hand the conditions on ranches in this part of California. He lived twenty-five miles from Soledad in Salinas and traveled around the region to research articles for the San Francisco Chronicle about the hardship faced by migrant workers. Steinbeck, a native Californian, was struck time and again by the contrast between the state’s natural beauty and abundance and the miserable, near-starvation hardship faced by many of the people who had come to live and work there. Of Mice and Men underlines this contrast by sandwiching the ranch setting with the first and last scenes, which are set in the beautiful natural setting of a shaded pool and provide a Garden of Eden-like purity.
The ranch is a stark, harsh environment. The bunkhouse where the men live looks like a prison, with “small, square windows” and a “solid door.” Each worker has so few personal possessions that they can be stored in an apple box nailed to the wall. The reader is further reminded that the workers are prisoners of their circumstances by the “jingle of trace chains” and the “rattle […] of halter chains.” Lennie spends much of his time in the barn where the horses live, suggesting that Lennie is animal-like in his strength and innocence. However, this setting also serves to point out that the horses’ living conditions are no worse—and perhaps better—than those of the men. By presenting the ranch as a stark, inhuman environment, Of Mice and Men argues that economic exploitation reduces the poorest workers to the level of prisoners or draft animals.